Gospel Story of the Week
Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (John 11:1-45)
“Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
When I was working my way through college tending bar, one of the bartenders I worked with had a saying: “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.” In my early 20s, I had little experience of such ruts. Now that I’ve lived for more than 60 years, I’ve known my share of them. Something in the Lazarus story connects me with my experience of ruts and stagnation. There is a place within each of us where we are more dead than alive. When we encounter these stagnant places, we are – like Lazarus – entombed.
For most of my career, I worked hard to build a successful company. The consulting firm that began as my solo practice grew into a firm that became well established and had a solid reputation for serving its clients. For most of those years, I had “two jobs.” One was serving my own clients, and the other was providing strategic leadership for the consulting firm. By the time I reached my late 40s, it was clear to me that the success of the company had been purchased at a significant cost to my mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. The work that I had once loved was no longer fun. I was in a rut, and something had to change.
When I’m faced with stagnation, my first tendency is the same as Martha’s. I am afraid to roll back the stone for fear of the stench. It took me a long time to realize that when stagnation engulfs me, it can be a gift in disguise. Over time I’ve discovered that my stagnation has a life-serving purpose. It directs my attention to the aspects of my life that need to change.
Our lives have a momentum that is difficult to overcome. When I was faced with stagnation in my career, there were forces in my life urging me to ignore my instincts and stay in my rut. Yet the stagnation forced me to examine my life in a deeper way. It was a powerful catalyst for change. I needed to learn to embrace the dying parts of me that I was working so hard to avoid. That part of me possesses some deep wisdom about what’s not right with my life.
Stagnation and death are an inevitable part of life. We’d like to maintain the naïve view that Christian faith insulates us from these realities, but it doesn’t. Human life is an agonizing mix of bitter and sweet. The moon waxes and wanes, reaching fullness only a few nights each month. Success is only possible when failure is also part of the picture. We live in a world filled with darkness as well as sunlight, hate as well as love, evil as well as good and death as well as life. If we are to embrace life, we have to embrace the whole of it.
Far from sheltering us from these painful realities, Christian faith places us fully in the midst of them. The good news is that we do not face them alone. Jesus, the compassionate one who wept at Lazarus’ tomb, also meets us in the dull rut of our stagnation. He weeps for us, and then he calls us out of the tomb. He touches us with a power stronger than death and gifts us with resurrection faith. That faith gives us the courage to roll back the stone, face the stench and walk into the light.
The stagnation of my late 40s led me to face difficult choices. Once I moved past the denial of “everything’s fine,” my first instinct was to make minor adjustments in the externals of my life. I tried hiring someone to manage the company, devoting less time to work and taking up hobbies that I had neglected for years. These external changes did little to restore my vital energy. Something more fundamental was necessary.
I found myself longing for prayer and solitude, and this quiet led to some intense soul-searching. I came to realize that I needed an inside out, fundamental change. I needed to reconnect with my deepest passions and leave behind the things that led to exhaustion rather than fulfillment.
Something in the Lazarus story connects us with the stagnant inner places where we are dying. Our fear urges us to cling to the darkness of the tomb. By contrast, Jesus calls us to leave these dull ruts of stagnation behind, walk back into the light and embrace the resurrection. If we believe, we will see ourselves journey through the desert of grief and tears to rediscover our passion for what is truly important. If we believe, we will see the dead ends and detours of our lives give way to revitalization and new life. If we believe, we will see our stagnation and despair become wellsprings of creativity and gardens of hope.
The closing scene of the classic movie Papillon captures what’s at stake in our life and death struggle with stagnation. After years of separation, Papillon (played by Steve McQueen) is reunited with his fellow prisoner Dega (played by Dustin Hoffman). They were both sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island and arrived there together. Early in their imprisonment, they attempted to escape together but were recaptured and tortured. The long imprisonment has broken Dega’s spirit. When the two meet again, Dega’s home is a small square of dirt that he refuses to leave. He has literally become a prisoner of his own fear, waving a machete wildly in the air to keep imaginary intruders from invading his “home.”
Papillon is a sharp contrast to Dega. During his imprisonment, he has made repeated escape attempts. When each one failed, he was subjected to solitary confinement, torture and other severe punishments. Yet after years of failed attempts, he is still determined to escape. Not far from Dega’s prison of fear, he has fashioned a raft out of coconuts. He watches over the cliff as the waves crash against the rocks that surround Devil’s Island, trying to read the pattern of the waves. He is determined to hurl the raft over the cliff, dive into the water and make one final attempt to achieve his freedom.
Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus and calls him forth. When we are entombed in the ruts of our own stagnation he also calls to us. We can, like Dega, remain prisoners of our fear and hide in the darkness of the tomb. Or, like Papillon, whose name is the French word for butterfly, we can take a leap of faith. That leap requires us to trust that each rut in our life is a cocoon rather than a tomb. It requires us to trust in the resurrection and to believe that the words Jesus spoke to Lazarus are also meant for us: “Unbind him… unbind her… let them go free!”
Questions to Ponder
- When have you experienced ruts and stagnation in your own life? How did you respond?
- When you’ve experienced fear and stagnation, has your response been more like Dega or like Papillon?
- When have you found the courage to roll back the stone, walk back into the light, and embrace the resurrection?
Invitation to Prayer
Jesus, you are the resurrection and the life. You know all my stagnant places, the deep ruts that I have worn in my life. Sometimes I lose hope and cling to the darkness of these tombs. Give me the courage to trust that you are present – even when I’m broken and stagnant – bringing life out of death, hope out of despair and joy out of grief. Let me surrender to you and open myself to transformation.
Jesus, you are the resurrection and the life. Help me to turn away from stagnation, despair and isolation to embrace the life you bring. I long for this, even though I am afraid. Like Dega, I am often a prisoner of my own fear. Give me the courage to trust in you, to take Papillon’s leap of faith and to choose freedom and life.
Jesus, you are the resurrection and the life. Give me the courage to roll back the stone and respond to your voice when you call me from the grave. Free me from the chains of sin and death so that I may be able to walk into the light. Bring me fully alive in you so that I may live for the glory of God. Let my entire life be a joyful hymn that gives you thanks and praise!